Reviewed by Terri Schlichenmeyer
ONLY ON THE WEB
You must have driven your mother crazy. She went to the kitchen, you went with her. She tried to do laundry, you had to “help”; same with pretty much any household chore. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom without you banging on the door.
As a kid, you loved your mom to pieces and you followed her everywhere. It stands to reason, then, that you’d follow her to another country. That’s what author Guillermo Reyes did, and in his new book Madre & I, he writes a dual memoir.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Guillermo Reyes was a third-generation el hijo natural, a child “of nature” whose parents weren’t married. It wasn’t scandalous, but Reyes often wondered why there were so many surnames in his family. He wondered why he carried his father’s name.
A bookish, precocious boy, Reyes was bullied in school for being a “sissy.” His response was to become a know-it-all and teacher’s pet, which made the problem worse. Once, his mother stepped in to complain. At least once, she bullied him about it herself.
Maria Graciela Cáceres was a dreamer; her son says she strongly reminded him of the Julie Andrews character in The Sound of Music. Maria loved to entertain, and she loved a good adventure. It was no surprise, then, that she decided to follow a friend to America in 1970, to work as a nanny.
Reyes wasn’t worried. Left behind in the care of his extended, loving (and eccentric) family, he learned the truth about his father from a chatty “aunt.” Not long afterward, he joined his mother in Bethesda, Maryland. Later, together, they drove cross-country to California.
Reyes grew up a typical American teenager with attitude and a flair for the dramatic. Not shy, he longed for love and had crushes on several unattainable men, including one who eventually became his best friend.
Reyes’ mother, meanwhile, married a man who needed “papers.” It was a loveless marriage, but Maria accepted it and so did her son. It was with this man that Reyes forged what was perhaps the most meaningful father-figure relationship of his life. It was also from this unlikely stepfather that Reyes learned the most about his mother.
Oh, my, Madre & I is certainly a chatty book, and that’s not always a good thing. Author and playwright Guillermo Reyes crams a lot of stories in this double memoir, but the problem is that he flits from tale to tale, year to year, and locale to city to nation. This had a whiplash effect on my attention span and I often fought to maintain focus.
The saving grace in this situation is Reyes’ sense of humor. He’s not afraid to garnish his tales with wit and light, and while it doesn’t erase the overwordiness of this book, it helps a lot.
Madre & I isn’t the best Mom-and-Me memoir I’ve ever read, but it’s not the worst, either. Tackle it if you will, enjoy it, but just be aware that it’s a little hard to follow.
Madre & I
by Guillermo Reyes
2010, University of Wisconsin Press (www.uwpress.wisc.edu)
278 pages, $18
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.